Ippen, Hijiri

The hijiri of medieval and later Japan were itinerate holy men, wanderers without home or possessions. If the term is applied loosely, one might see the poet-hermit monk Saigyo (118-1190) as a model hijiri, and perhaps even Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the haiku master and inveterate traveler. But whatever the spiritual influences on the poetry of Saigyo and Basho it is aesthetic, and the lives of these poets not strictly given over to the didactic and devotional, as was the life of the most famous hijiri: Ippen.

Ippen (1239-1289) is important to the history of eremiticism because he places even the symbol of the hermit's hut within the context of the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Ippen is famous as the great proselytizer of Pure Land Buddhism, for the itinerancy of his life and the fervor of his teaching. He is equally notable as the object of a famous scroll depicting his life in painted scenes and accompanying text, the Ippen Hijiri-e. And while the hermit hut was always considered a projection of self and cosmos in Chinese and Japanese thought, Ippen is unique in considering even the hut as but a tenuous link to the permanent sacred though ultimately as a possession, something to renounce and reject. The hermit hut is a necessary waystation for the body -- like food and drink and clothing -- but even the symbol of the hut is too comfortable for him.

Ippen is a model hijiri because he rejects both the life of the householder and the life of the institutional monk in a temple or monastery setting. As he developed a body of thought and teaching, Ippen incorporated a complex of Buddhist and Shinto traditions that addressed the needs of his diverse audiences., from poor to wealthy, humble to noble. During his lifetime, Ippen was a mountain hermit but came to include pilgrimages, rituals, dream divination, temple and shrine offerings, distribution of slips of papers with holy inscriptions, and ultimately the advocacy of recitation of the Buddha's name as the core of spirituality.

Early in life, Ippen came to understand the essence of Buddhist spirituality, says the Ippen Hijiri-e:

The Buddha taught that even sleeping in mountains and forests is superior to diligence while in householding life. Moreover, there was an incident that reminded him of the admonition, "If they linger long in the village, hijiri and deer meet with disaster."

When Ippen determined to pursue the "nembutsu" as his religious form, partly inspired by a succession of contemporary Japanese teachers but partly as an interpretation of a dream, he nevertheless sought out a period of solitude as a wanderer first. During this period, records the Ippen Hijiri-e:

Few gave alms. Having savored the spring mists, he passed the long day mindful of the birth in the Pure Land that is no birth. ... A monk he encountered gave him a cloak, which he wrapped around his body as he continued walking  on as his steps led him. When the sun set on the mountain paths, he brushed off the moss and lay down in the dew.

Ippen recalled the sayings of a tenth-century monk, Master Kuya, called the "hijiri of the marketplace" and a model for Ippen:

Seek fame or lead a following and both body and mind grow weary. Accumulate merit and practice good, and your desires and ambitions increase. Nothing is comparable to solitariness, with no outside involvement. Nothing surpasses saying the Name [of Buddha] and casting off all concerns.

After four years of solitary wandering, Ippen began to attract disciples, and the trajectory of his life shifted, but the austerity of these gray-robed wanderers always reflected the profound simplicity of life that Ippen first embraced. Ippen's writings, though lacking the aesthetic sensibilities of the poets and the philosophical complexities of the masters, is nevertheless characteristically straightforward.

The echo of solitude permeates Ippen's representative work, "Gist of Empty Words," as the evocative opening lines of the poem suggest:

While transmigrating through the six paths
There's no one for company;
Alone we are born, alone we die:
Full of sorrows this road of birth-and-death.

He touches upon the theme of dwelling-place:

Though you have no settled dwelling
To consider a permanent home,
Since, after all, houses abound,
You'll never be drenched by the rains [i.e., taking refuge in the nembutsu].

And the clearest allusion to the saying the Gautama:

Realizing that the world has always been a house on fire,
We don't clamor to find it being consumed by flames;
And though we observe much that is ruined and worn,
We have no will to make repairs.

Ippen tells us that with this view of the universe:

Where a single mat is spread out
We feel no confinement;
Rising and returning with the utterance of the Name
Is the abode where no delusions arise.

But not just one's personal dwelling should be seen as impermanent. Ippen rejects halls, temple, shrines, and speaks of his "aversion for sect superiors and their pomps." He wants no disciples or supporters, and accepts food and clothing as necessary, but "I make no effort at all to obtain them." As for clothing Ippen knows others will provide "padded robe, thin hemp, or paper garb" -- he is indifferent, counting on whatever is available.

Indeed, in his poem "Deep Significance of the Tools of the Way," Ippen enumerates the minimal possessions that constitute "tools.": alms bowl, chopsticks, hempen outer garments, inner garment, summer and winter  garments, paper robe, prayer beads, wooden sandals, scarf, and the like.

Here are representative statements from the collection "Words Handed Down by Disciples." First, Ippen quoting Kuyu:

The recluse leading a tranquil life rejoices at poverty; the contemplative in his dim cell makes a companion of stillness. Hempen clothes and paper bedding are robes of purity; they are easily acquired, and occasion no fear of bandits.

The narrative by a disciple continues:

Ippen, complying with these words of Dharma, abandoned his body and life in the hills and meadows, and made his abode where wind and cloud led him. Though he had followers as the occasion arose, in his heart he was far removed from all entanglements. He possessed not a particle of money; no silken cloth touched his skin. He never took gold or silver objects in his hand and strictly refrained from liquor, meat, and the five forbidden flavors. Thus he polished the jewels of the ten major precepts.

Finally, these passages by Ippen:

To become solitary and simple in utter aloneness -- living wholly unconcerned about the multitude of worldly affairs, and abandoning and disentangling yourself from all things -- is to die. We are born alone; we die alone.

Food, clothing, and shelter are the three evil paths. To desire and make a display of clothing is karma for the path of beasts. To greedily crave food is karma for the path of famished ghosts. To set up a shelter is karma for the path of hell. Hence, if you aspire to part from the three evil paths, you must free yourself from food, clothing, and shelter.

There should be no seeking after food, clothing, and shelter on our part; we should leave these to the working of things.

The path of the hijiri was the difficult path of abandoning everything in order to assert one's identity with everything. The life and sentiment of Ippen was given over to the pursuit of this path.


No Abode: the Record of Ippen, translated and edited by Dennis Hirota. Rev. ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.